'The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision."
- Helen Keller
I love edges. I love exploring edges. You know, where the sea meets the shore, where the highland forest meets the alpine's rocky soil... or even (at its most extreme) where the wild of nature takes over again from our all-too-human efforts to subdue it. But until I met Californian architect Eldon Beck I didn't know why these special edge-places held such a powerful attraction for me.
Remember Eldon? Combining equal parts wisdom, artistic whimsy and a highly disciplined work ethic, the soft-spoken landscape architect was the man who brought a human touch to the (originally unworkable) Whistler Village Master Plan. I don't remember exactly where or how we met... I think it was at some design forum in the early 1980s. But from the very beginning, his words resonated with me.
"Good mountain design," he'd say, "is all about experiencing the senses.
"Successful mountain communities celebrate that fact. They find ways of connecting with their natural environment — rather than trying to overwhelm it." He would pause at this point. "Nature is a great teacher," he would then say. "All the answers are there... You just have to ask the right questions."
And he wasn't trying to be glib. "What we're seeing in modern culture," he once told me, "is how all this high-tech 'stuff' is drawing us away from our natural surroundings. Mountain resorts, by their very nature, offer a relief valve from the intense technological pressures bearing down on city dwellers. The greatest value we can provide them is a natural setting not overwhelmed by city-inspired designs."
Which brings us to Eldon's concept of "edges."
"I remember back in 1972," he'd recount, "sitting beside Gore Creek in Vail Village and being fascinated by the richness in the interface of creek and shore. That's when it struck me — there was real power, true enchantment, in these oft-overlooked micro-zones."
Beck uses the term "ecotone" to describe such habitat edges. And it's his belief that an ecotone features a richer environment than either of its compositional parts. It makes sense. Whether river estuary or subalpine fringe, Eldon's edgy "ecotones" certainly feature more diversity than do their monotone neighbours. "It's all about texture," he'd explain. "And natural ecotones offer a richness of texture that is very appealing to human beings." Think about it, he'd say. "If we really want to encourage people to re-connect with their wild surroundings, then the challenge is to create the same kind of textural richness in the interface between man-made development and nature."
Hang on to that thought.
Skiing isn't just a business. It's a sport. A culture. For some it's even an art form. Indeed, there are few outdoor activities that offer such a diversity of experiences as sliding on snow in wintertime. From dropping weightlessly into a big pocket of powder to riding a perfect edge on impeccably-groomed hard-pack — from spinning 720s in the park to smacking gates at the Olympic training centre — skiing is the closest thing to wingless flight most of us will ever know.
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